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Issue 21

December 21, 1998
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Spotlight We spotlight an etymological curiosity and provide an in-depth examination of the word(s) and the etymological theories associated with it.
Words to the Wise Our world-famous question and answer column in which we address your word-history queries.
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Yule do what? Oh, not you'll, but Yule. A word for the holiday season. However, all of you atheists, agnostics, and folks of religions other than Christianity (I hope that covers everyone!) need not flee, because Yule has its origins in pre-Christian times. It was originally Old English geol, and it was the name of a winter festival, but when Christians decided to make mid-winter the time to commemorate Christ's birth, the pre-Christian festival was supplanted; however, its name remained and soon came to refer to the festival which replaced it - Christmas.

Interestingly, one cognate is Old Norse jol "winter festival" (also a pre-Christian festival, it lasted 12 days), and it is thought that jolly might come from jol. As for geol, its origins are debatable, but some suggest that it comes from the Indo-European root *qwelo- "go round" (cycle and wheel come from the same source). That would mean that Yule ultimately meant "the end of the yearly cycle". Note that the Angles in England referred to December/January as giuli or "the Yule month" (8th century).


AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Jeff Costa:

I am trying to find out the origin of the word pandemonium. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

This is one of those somewhat rare animals in etymology - an invented word. John Milton came up with pandemonium as the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost (1667). He brought together the Greek pan- "all" and daķmon "demon" to form a word with the meaning "place of all demons". The current meaning of the word, "an uproar", arose in the mid-19th century by metaphorical association with what a "place of all demons" must sound like!

Here is a case where knowing the etymology of the word can help one with spelling it: this word is commonly misspelled as pandAmonium, but knowing that there are demons in the word should save you from eternal damnation to misspeller's hell!


From Chris Kennedy:

A question that's been bothering me for a while now: where did the word I come from, and, specifically, why is it capitalized?

All Indo-European words for I come from the same root: compare Latin ego, French je, Russiona ja, Italian io, and Spanish yo. Further, the Proto-Germanic root was *eka (compare especially with the Latin form), and it gave us German ich, Dutch ik (compare Old English ic), Swedish jag, Danish jeg,and English I.  [Note that an asterisk in front of a root indicates that the word is theoretical.]

The word came to be capitalized in Middle English to help distinguish it as a separate word and avoid its being misread in handwritten manuscripts. It first appeared in upper case in midland dialects of England in the mid-13th century, but, interestingly, the Southern English did not formally adopt it until the 18th century. Until that time they used ich to mean "I".


From Melvyn Goodman:

What an interesting site. I hope to be a regular visitor and promise not to be too much trouble. My question is how does the word main come to mean "the sea" as in The Spanish Main? It is constantly used in the cryptic crossword published in the UK Daily Telegraph, always with the meaning "ocean or sea".

Excuse me if we ramble a bit but we've been musing about this one ourselves, recently.  You see, there is an old English folk song called "The Low, Low Lands of Holland", all about a young man who is seized by the press-gang on his wedding night and forced to serve in the Royal Navy in a war against Holland.  For all its gripping narrative and poignant melody it has a very tenuous grasp of geography as, according to the song, "Holland" abounds in sugar cane and tea!  What has this to do with your question? Well, while listening to this song recently, we were struck by the phrase "the main ocean".  In this context, main could mean a broad expanse, "main ocean" thus being synonymous with "open sea".   Ironically, this usage of main is more familiar to us in the word mainland.   It is derived from the Old English (before 900 AD) męgen, "strength" and retains something of its original meaning in the expression "by might and main".

On the other hand, "main ocean" (in the song) could mean the Spanish Main.  This phrase was originally used to refer to the Spanish possessions on the coast of South America from the Orinoco River to the Isthmus of Panama.  Later, when pirates, privateers and warring European nations arrived to plunder its riches, the phrase came to mean the whole Caribbean Sea and the West Indian islands contained therein.  We assume that Main here comes from main "expanse".


From Eric J. Shubert:

I realize that this query may be a little off base, as it concerns letters as opposed to words. If it is out of line, please ignore it and accept my apology.

My question is: Why are the letters of the alphabet in the sequence that they are? Or, more to the point, how did they come to be in that sequence? It seems arbitrary to me. The best answer I've found to this point was given by my brother: because that's the way the song goes. :)

Mike says that he can still remember the day he first heard about the alphabet...

"I was walking to school with another young student and he asked me if I knew all my letters.  I assured him that I did indeed and that I could read considerable portions of The Beano unaided.  'But,' inquired my persistent companion, 'do you know your alphabet?'.   I confessed that I had never heard of it and asked him to elucidate.  He explained that there was an order assigned to the letters and that this order had no logical basis, being independent of sound, shape or size.  I treated this ridiculous assertion with all the scorn and derision a five-year-old can muster and assumed that he only believed it himself because he was a Catholic.  Imagine my horror when I discovered the hideous truth!"

As mentioned in previous columns, the earliest ancestor of our alphabet is a class of Northern Semitic scripts known conveniently as Phoenician.  It was probably the first phonetic writing system.   This new technology was so useful that several other scripts were created on the Phoenician model: Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, the entire Indian family of scripts and even Thai.  An ancient Indian grammarian named Panini set out the letters of Sanskrit in a sequence which, when written, is a highly ordered, logical grid of surds, aspirates, dentals, sibilants and so on.  (His categories are almost identical to those used by modern philologists.)  Due to the cultural influence of Sanskrit in Asia, all members of the Indian family of scripts now use an alphabet based on some form of Panini's sequence.

Not so the Europeans.  We have inherited a form of the Greek alphabet which was used by the Romans.  (In 450 B.C. the citizens of Athens voted on whether to use this alphabet.  They chose the pretty one, instead.)  The Romans, the Greeks and their medieval successors all had a hand in shaping our alphabet by dropping letters that were no longer needed and tacking a few new ones onto the end but, in the main, it retained some semblance of the original Phoenician order.

So, where did the Phoenician order come from?  One of my reference books has the glorious phrase "The reason for the particular order of the letters is not fully clear".  However, some scholars suggest that it is was originally a mnemonic device based on similarities between adjacent letters according to their sounds, their shapes and the meanings of their names.


curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

...our soapbox where we vent our spleen regarding abuses of the English language.


I was listening to a national news program on the radio not too long ago and was baffled for a moment when I heard the announcer say, "The sanctions against a rock are taking their toll on the children there." A rock? Well, it quickly dawned on me that the announcer meant Iraq. I thought I'd heard all of the possible pronunciations during the Bush administration: Eye-rack, Ear-rack, Ear-rock. Apparently there was at least one more!.


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